The earliest usable and much copied vehicle was created by the German Karl Drais. He called it a Laufmaschine (German for “running machine”), which he first rode on June 12, 1817. He obtained a patent in January 1818. Drais’ purpose for inventing the “running machine” was actually to solve a very serious problem — a dearth of real horses. Bad harvests and a series of natural disasters occurring in the early 1810s resulted in mass starvation and the slaughtering of thousands of horses. Drais considered his invention, originally with four wheels then redesigned with two, as an alternative to transportation on horseback. Despite Drais’ impetus, his invention was viewed by his contemporaries as a curiosity only.
This was the world’s first balance bicycle and quickly became popular in both the United Kingdom and France, where it was sometimes called a draisine (German and English), draisienne (French), a vélocipède (French), a swiftwalker, a pedestrian curricle, a dandy horse (as it was very popular among dandies) or a hobby horse (as it was a popular hobby).
It was made entirely of wood and metal, weighed nearly 50 pounds, and had no practical use except on a well-maintained pathway in a park or garden. London coach-builder Denis Johnson fashioned a lighter version in 1818, yet it still lacked pedals, gears, or a chain. To move forward, the rider pushed on the ground with his feet, leaning forward while sitting on a central saddle. As you may imagine, this was not a smooth way to travel and could, to be blunt, damage a gentleman’s manly parts! But no matter, it was fashionable and faster than walking. Additionally, retailing for around £10 – quite a tidy sum for a bit of a gimmick – owning and riding a draisine made a statement.
That statement, in part, was, “Get out of my way!” With no brakes, other than one’s feet, and limited steering capability, pedestrians were at serious risk of harm. Nevertheless, the craze was so intense that those who dealt in various aspects of the horse and carriage trade – vets, ostlers, grooms, coachmen and blacksmiths – feared the end of their livelihood. One of the dozens of negative caricatures drawn at the time included this quote:
“Then beware Hobby Horsemen, beware of yr fate
Dismount from your Hobbies before t’is too late,
For Farmers, horse doctors and horses providers,
Cry down wooden horses & down walking riders,
whoa hobby, down hobby down.”
As it turned out, the continued necessity for horses and carriages would remain for decades to come. Between the hazards to drivers and innocent bystanders that lead to bans by authorities, and the typical waning enthusiasm that swiftly follows a fad, by 1820 the vehicles had all but disappeared from use. Not until the early 1860s would the history of the bicycle resume. A wooden contraption with two steel wheels, pedals, and a fixed gear system, known as a velocipede (fast foot) or a “bone shaker” (due to the bumpy ride) was introduced, although the exact sequence of events or who to credit is murky.
A German named Karl Kech claimed he was the first to attach pedals to a hobby horse in 1862, but the first US patent for such a device was granted to Pierre Lallement, a French carriage maker, in 1866. In 1864, before obtaining a patent for his vehicle, Lallement exhibited his creation publicly. Aime and Rene Olivier — two sons of a wealthy Parisian industrialist — learned of his invention and decided to create a velocipede of their own. They enlisted Pierre Michaux, a blacksmith and carriage maker, to create the parts they needed for their invention. Michaux and the Olivier brothers began marketing their velocipede with pedals in 1867, and it was this device that became a hit.
Uncounted versions of velocipedes were created, finally morphing into the bicycle we know. From there, as the saying goes, the rest is history.